[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones (NY Times)
jancius at ohio.edu
Fri Oct 5 12:54:24 EDT 2007
Related to our recent discussion on the Department of Defense's recruitment
and the Network of Concerned anthropologists, I'm forwarding a NY Times
article, published today, which was posted to SEA-L. - AJ
October 5, 2007
Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones
By DAVID ROHDE
SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan - In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern
Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial
new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian
anthropologist named Tracy.
Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a
member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program
that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat
units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team's ability to understand subtle
points of tribal relations - in one case spotting a land dispute that
allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe - has won the praise of
officers who say they are seeing concrete results.
Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working
with the anthropologists here, said that the unit's combat operations had
been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and
that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health
care and education for the population.
"We're looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist's
perspective," he said. "We're not focused on the enemy. We're focused on
bringing governance down to the people."
In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million
expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and
social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the
Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.
Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social
sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin
America, some denounce the program as "mercenary anthropology" that exploits
social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their
intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause
all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American
Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10
other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for
anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.
"While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure
world," the pledge says, "at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of
occupation which has entailed massive casualties."
In Afghanistan, the anthropologists arrived along with 6,000 troops, which
doubled the American military's strength in the area it patrols, the country's
A smaller version of the Bush administration's troop increase in Iraq, the
buildup in Afghanistan has allowed American units to carry out the
counterinsurgency strategy here, where American forces generally face less
resistance and are better able to take risks.
A New Mantra
Since Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the overall American commander in Iraq,
oversaw the drafting of the Army's new counterinsurgency manual last year,
the strategy has become the new mantra of the military. A recent American
military operation here offered a window into how efforts to apply the new
approach are playing out on the ground in counterintuitive ways.
In interviews, American officers lavishly praised the anthropology program,
saying that the scientists' advice has proved to be "brilliant," helping
them see the situation from an Afghan perspective and allowing them to cut
back on combat operations.
The aim, they say, is to improve the performance of local government
officials, persuade tribesmen to join the police, ease poverty and protect
villagers from the Taliban and criminals.
Afghans and Western civilian officials, too, praised the anthropologists and
the new American military approach but were cautious about predicting
long-term success. Many of the economic and political problems fueling
instability can be solved only by large numbers of Afghan and American
"My feeling is that the military are going through an enormous change right
now where they recognize they won't succeed militarily," said Tom Gregg, the
chief United Nations official in southeastern Afghanistan. "But they don't
yet have the skill sets to implement" a coherent nonmilitary strategy, he
Deploying small groups of soldiers into remote areas, Colonel Schweitzer's
paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to resolve tribal disputes
that have simmered for decades. Officers shrugged off questions about
whether the military was comfortable with what David Kilcullen, an
Australian anthropologist and an architect of the new strategy, calls "armed
"Who else is going to do it?" asked Lt. Col. David Woods, commander of the
Fourth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "You have to evolve. Otherwise you're
The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the military
called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this summer in which
500 Afghan and 500 American soldiers tried to clear an estimated 200 to 250
Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province, secure southeastern
Afghanistan's most important road and halt a string of suicide attacks on
American troops and local governors.
In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an
unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods said.
Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to provide for
their families, she determined, a burden that could drive the young men to
join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy's advice, American officers
developed a job training program for the widows.
In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a local
tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the Taliban's goal,
she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern
Afghanistan's most powerful tribes. If Afghan and American officials could
unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating
in the area.
"Call it what you want, it works," said Colonel Woods, a native of Denbo,
Pa. "It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms."
The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003, when
American officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information
about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate,
a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the Navy who advocated
using social science to improve military operations and strategy.
Ms. McFate helped develop a database in 2005 that provided officers with
detailed information on the local population. The next year, Steve
Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and
advocated embedding social scientists with American combat units.
Ms. McFate, the program's senior social science adviser and an author of the
new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with
the military. "I'm frequently accused of militarizing anthropology," she
said. "But we're really anthropologizing the military."
Roberto J. González, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University,
called participants in the program naïve and unethical. He said that the
military and the Central Intelligence Agency had consistently misused
anthropology in counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns and that military
contractors were now hiring anthropologists for their local expertise as
"Those serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence
agencies and contractors," he wrote in the June issue of Anthropology Today,
an academic journal, "will end up harming the entire discipline in the long
Arguing that her critics misunderstand the program and the military, Ms.
McFate said other anthropologists were joining the teams. She said their
goal was to help the military decrease conflict instead of provoking it, and
she vehemently denied that the anthropologists collected intelligence for
In eastern Afghanistan, Tracy said wanted to reduce the use of heavy-handed
military operations focused solely on killing insurgents, which she said
alienated the population and created more insurgents. "I can go back and
enhance the military's understanding," she said, "so that we don't make the
same mistakes we did in Iraq."
Along with offering advice to commanders, she said, the five-member team
creates a database of local leaders and tribes, as well as social problems,
economic issues and political disputes.
Clinics and Mediation
During the recent operation, as soldiers watched for suicide bombers, Tracy
and Army medics held a free medical clinic. They said they hoped that
providing medical care would show villagers that the Afghan government was
improving their lives.
Civil affairs soldiers then tried to mediate between factions of the Zadran
tribe about where to build a school. The Americans said they hoped that the
school, which would serve children from both groups, might end a 70-year
dispute between the groups over control of a mountain covered with lucrative
Though they praised the new program, Afghan and Western officials said it
remained to be seen whether the weak Afghan government could maintain the
gains. "That's going to be the challenge, to fill the vacuum," said Mr.
Gregg, the United Nations official. "There's a question mark over whether
the government has the ability to take advantage of the gains."
Others also question whether the overstretched American military and its
NATO allies can keep up the pace of operations.
American officers expressed optimism. Many of those who had served in both
Afghanistan and Iraq said they had more hope for Afghanistan. One officer
said that the Iraqis had the tools to stabilize their country, like a
potentially strong economy, but that they lacked the will. He said Afghans
had the will, but lacked the tools.
After six years of American promises, Afghans, too, appear to be waiting to
see whether the Americans or the Taliban will win a protracted test of wills
here. They said this summer was just one chapter in a potentially lengthy
At a "super jirga" set up by Afghan and American commanders here, a member
of the Afghan Parliament, Nader Khan Katawazai, laid out the challenge ahead
to dozens of tribal elders.
"Operation Khyber was just for a few days," he said. "The Taliban will
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